Where were you when? It’s a common question asked of people who were alive when certain events took place. In relatively recent times the question might be “Where were you on 9/11 when the World Trade towers were struck by two airplanes and collapsed in a horrific act of violence?” Most adults who were awake and aware in the US–It was early morning West Coast time, 9 a.m. in the East–know exactly where they were on that morning as the images came in and the news spread across the country. I was at the grocery store picking up some items in preparation for a friend’s visit the next day. She was supposed to fly into Michigan from California. Needless to say she was unable to get on a plane the next day or for the next several days.
As a child of the 60s, I recall many such moments: the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963 (I was in Sister Thomas Marie’s first grade class at Saint Mary’s Campus School), the 1968 assassinations of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Senator Robert F. Kennedy (I was at home with my family), the first time humans set foot on the moon in 1969 (our family was at the movies seeing “My Side of the Mountain.”) Significant events are burned into our consciousness in a particular way; for some of us we will forever associate those events with what was going on for us when they happened.
So it must have been for the followers of Jesus. “Where were you when they came and arrested him?” “Where were you when he was brought to trial before Pilate? “Where were you when they tortured and killed him?” It is written that when Jesus was dying, darkness blanketed the land for three hours. I imagine that the people of the time could remember what they were doing when the darkness descended and all manner of strange things happened. Those who were on hand to witness the actual crucifixion and death of Jesus were witness to sights and sounds that would be indelibly etched onto their memories for the remainder of their lives. Those who had followed and loved Jesus, whether close by or watching from afar, were no doubt stunned into silence as the unreality of what was happening unfolded before them.
There is a certain unreality that hits when a significant and unexpected event occurs. We were entertaining friends at a Memorial Day cookout when my sister called to tell me my mother had died. After I took the call, I came back out to the back yard, shook my head slightly at my partner and went on with the cookout. When our friends had gone I was able to briefly feel and talk about her passing before going into business mode, working out details with work colleagues so I could leave the office for a few days. I drifted through a sense of unreality during those days, and while I can remember where I was when I got the call, I don’t remember too much afterward. That was nearly 20 years ago.
Throughout the day today I’ve been singing aloud as well as in my mind and heart the old spiritual “Were You There?” I remember listening to Tennessee Ernie Ford sing it when we used to play his records on the old stereo in the living room. As I sung it to myself, I found myself pausing at the line, “Were you there when the sun refused to shine?” I can remember that on the day of my mother’s funeral being irrationally irritated that the sun was shining and it was a beautiful late spring day. “How can the sun be shining?” I asked the universe, “My mother is dead.”
Good Friday is the most somber day of the liturgical year. It is a day filled with reenactments and rituals, rosaries and stations of the cross. I remember going to Good Friday services as a child, shouting “Crucify him!” during the group reading of the gospel account of the trial and crucifixion. “We want Barabbas!” we shouted. I didn’t really like the story of the crucifixion, but it was fun being able to act in church without getting in trouble.
The entire journey of these 40 days has led up to this moment–Jesus surrendering himself to be tortured and killed. For many of us it also provides an opportunity to reflect on death and dying and to examine our feelings and beliefs about resurrection, rebirth, and returning.
For me this journey has reconnected me with themes and traditions that I haven’t focused time and energy on in a long time. It’s been a good space for reflection on concepts that while they are perhaps not part of my daily conscious thought are never too far away. Concepts like grief, prayer, compassion, resilience, life purpose and many related themes that have flowed through the previous 38 days of this exploration. Commemoratively speaking, today Jesus has died, been lowered from the cross, cleaned and prepared for burial, and placed in his tomb. His followers and friends, mourners and lookers-on have now wandered away. And now we wait.
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Ohh, sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.
Were you there when they crucified my Lord? ~~American Spiritual created by African American slaves, 19th century